Class II Kayakers in Chile's Class V Paradise,
By Lora Cox
As beginner and intermediate paddlers we are constantly
enticed by incredible class V rivers and rapids. One of
the most reverently spoken of is the Futaleufu river in
Chile. Recently Lora Cox went to Chris Spelius' camp in
Chile to see what everyone is talking about.
We, two middle-aged kayakers who took up the sport a
few years ago, first became aware of the gorgeous Chilean
whitewater from watching the Canoe and Kayak shows on
the Outdoor Life Network last summer. There were several
segments featuring the raging sparkling blue-green water,
the beautiful countryside, and the simple agrarian life
of the natives. Of course, the shows emphasized the thrilling
Class IV and V runs. But there was something about the
undeniable beauty of the water that just kept calling
to us, like the mythological Sirens who tempted Odysseus.
After making a few phone inquiries, we were assured that,
although the area is renown for The Greatest Whitewater
on Earth, the outfitter was prepared to accommodate us
with some advanced planning.
Although we'll likely never be Class V paddlers, we
do love rivers and paddling just as much as the young
testosterone-laden hair boaters and the seasoned experts.
We didn't want to miss out on being there, just in case
the Chilean government decides to dam it up (like they
did the Bio Bio). The final factor in our decision was
a desire to escape a bit of the New England winter, since
the seasons are reversed in the Southern hemisphere. The
outfitter has one week trips as the standard, but we signed
up for two weeks. Final plans were made last October.
We signed up for a trip in March when the water would
be lower, when they would have staff ready for our abilities,
and when there would even be other people there with similar
skills to ours, in addition to the hair boaters. March
finally arrived and we were off.
In trying to describe the experience, it is difficult
to find superlatives that adequately express how great
the trip was. The outfitter came through with the promise
to accommodate our skill levels. The trick to getting
the outfitter's resources matched with our skill levels
was that we were brutally honest in our self-assessment.
There's some serious water in Chile; an overly generous
self-assessment of one's skill level is self-defeating.
Chilean Class II seemed more demanding than New England
Class II. We paddled a total of 11 days on three local
rivers: the Rio Espolon, the Rio Palena, and the bottom
section of the Rio Futaleufu. Most of our time was on
the Espolon. There were no crowds. A couple of outfitters
in the area run raft trips on the Futaleufu, so it is
possible that the hair boaters had to briefly share the
river with a couple of rafts. On our Class II sections,
however, we never encountered any other people.
Since this region is home of The Greatest Whitewater
on Earth, there's no shortage of qualified guides. For
five days, we were fortunate enough to have Mike Hipsher
as our guide/teacher. For the other six days, the guy
who owns the company, Chris Spelius, decided to take up
the challenge of helping us improve our skills. Another
guide, Rob Kelly, a rodeo champion, was there but only
paddled with the Class IV-V group. Mike and Chris have
many years of experience paddling and teaching, and have
each earned worldwide recognition for their superior skills.
It was a honor to have both of them paddling with us and
to learn from them.
In a way, it was surprising that Chris paddled with
us. He certainly could have pulled rank and gone for the
gusto on the big water with the hot paddlers. After overcoming
my initial surprise, and apprehension, about paddling
with him I came to recognize the sincere appreciation
he has for all aspects of the sport and of the region.
He has an intense, and pure, love for paddling which allows
him to enjoy dinky Class II stuff. Each day we were with
him he had something appreciative to say about the character
of the clean blue-green water or the beautiful scenery.
He loved "being there" as much as we did.
Early in the trip, I watched him teach an off-side roll
to Peter, a guy who usually sea kayaks but who came to
Chile with his whitewater hair boating buddies. Peter
learned the roll in 20 minutes, and a big grin took up
residence on his face. I wanted that grin, and later asked
Chris if he would help me to try and learn the roll. It
took him a little longer to teach me, but I got the roll.
And the grin.
I tested both Mike's and Chris' rescue skills; they
passed with flying colors. A couple of times we attempted
the bottom section of the Futaleufu, which they maintain
is a Class II. That's debatable. It's big and pushy, but
without serious consequence (or so they say). During my
"combat swim" after flipping when two big, fast-moving,
currents converged, I was almost to shore when the force
of the rebound current pushed me back into the main flow
of the river. This necessitated Chris doubling up his
efforts of rescuing someone else and then coming for me.
We did not paddle the Futaleufu; it paddled us. So we
went back to our old friend the Espolon and worked on
improving stroke technique and putting more "umph" into
It is deceptive watching a good paddler; the strength
behind the strokes is not immediately apparent. Those
guys made it look like they weren't even exerting themselves.
I was determined to learn the one-stroke stern draw ferry
and was getting it pretty good, on Class II water, just
about the time we had to leave. Other people might have
been disappointed about not becoming proficient enough
to paddle the famous Futaleufu, but we were grateful to
make the progress we did, to learn from the teachers we
had, and to be in such a gorgeous warm environment in
One day we skipped paddling in order to hike up to the
Throne Room rapid and watch the hair boaters tackle it.
Two of them normally paddle the Falls of the Potomac;
not surprisingly, they had impressive runs with no major
problems. Imagine our amazement a few minutes later when
we saw them running it again, after carrying back to the
top, this time nailing their lines to the wall. Their
runs were beautiful. They got special recognition from
Chris that night at dinner.
Judging from the energy level and conversations around
the table during breakfasts and dinners, the higher skilled
paddlers had as much fun on their runs as we did on ours.
It was great listening to tales of their adventures, and
learning a little bit from them.
There was a videographer/paddler at camp for the entire
season who would, for a price, shoot a video of each paddler's
runs. Because he mostly spent his time with people on
the Class IV-V stuff, I asked him if he would include
in my video runs of paddlers on the difficult sections,
as well as get shots of camp and include the native Chilean
support staff who work hard so that we can play hard.
He did all that and put some nice Chilean music to the
30 minute unnarrated video. I watch it at least twice
a month, sometimes more if I can nab an unsuspecting friend
and pop the tape into the VCR. There are even a few, brief,
shots of us in the video. In one, I rolled up on the bottom
section of the Futaleufu after falling victim to the power
of a strong eddy fence. Thankful to have rolled up and
that the roll was caught on tape; regretted flipping over
without more awareness of the hydrology in the first place.
That part of Chile is remote, unpolluted, and sparsely
populated. People live simple lives there. The water is
without equal; it is breath-taking in its splendor. I've
got some pretty good color pictures that don't begin to
capture how beautiful the water is. Usually glacial melt
is a gray milk color because of all the silt in it. This
water, however, melts from the glaciers and flows into
gigantic lakes where the silt settles out of it, the sun
warms it up a bit, and then it continues into the rivers.
The result is a sparkling blue-green masterpiece of color
that rivals the Caribbean. When the water is splashing
up in turbulence, its brilliance puts the finest crystal
chandelier to shame.
From our experience, we can make a few recommendations
to anyone considering this trip. The outfitter now has
beginner trips and can accommodate people who've never
even been in a kayak before. Following are brief notes
to help anyone else who might be thinking about planning
a kayak trip to Campo Tres Monjas.
1. Plan well. Read all the info the outfitter has carefully
compiled, from years of experience, in order for the trip
to go as smoothly as possible. Be brutally honest about
your paddling abilities so that you can go on a trip where
you'll likely have the most fun. If you end up paddling
better there than you had initially assessed yourself,
they'll happily take you on tougher sections. There's
no shortage of tough water or guides eager to run it.
2. Put two trips together if you can. We went for two
weeks, as did another couple during the time we were there;
all four of us agreed that it was the best for us. The
woman in the other couple wasn't serious about paddling
and spent a lot of her time riding horses, hiking, or
hanging out in camp reading by the shore of the Futaleufu.
She had a good time for two weeks while her boyfriend
adrenalized himself. Of course, by the end of the second
week I regretted not signing up for three.
3. Be prepared for a loooong trip, somewhere on the
order of 30 to 36 hours each way, depending on where you
begin. This doesn't include mechanical or weather problems
that may impose a longer travel time. The Miami to Santiago
leg alone is an 8 and 1/2 hour overnight flight. It's
brutal. If you can, stay at least one night in Puerto
Montt going each way. Once you get to kayak camp, you're
in a remote area without electricity or stores nearby.
Plan accordingly, and give yourself lots of time to pack
prior to leaving so that you can think of the little things
you might want to have with you when you're there.
4. Be prepared to experience "camping" as you've probably
never enjoyed it before. Although I could write an entire
article about how great camp was in its design and organization,
here are some brief remarks to tempt and tantalize. Water
from an underground spring has always tested negative
for bugs; so there's no hassling with filtering or sterilizing
water. Two outdoor hot water showers; hot water obtained
from wood fired stoves. One stove is in the kitchen part
of the dining hall; one stove heats the sauna (yes, sauna).
Massage (yes, massage) services available most evenings;
cost isn't included in trip fee, however. "Rack Room"
area to hang wet clothes and gear when you get back each
afternoon. Solar panel on dining hall building provides
enough electricity for dinner lighting. Food is excellent,
3 squares a day, prepared by a Chilean cooking magician.
A different freshly baked bread each day. Some of the
dinner entrees: spaghetti, pizza, World's Best Marinated
Salmon (Chile has a booming salmon industry), Argentinian-style
beef, lentil stew. They can accommodate special nutritional
needs. Sleeping in a tent was about the closest we came
to "camping" during our time at kayak camp.
5. The guides are isolated from most of civilization
during the entire season, from January through March,
and are therefore desperate for current news. If you go
on a trip and want to get in their good graces from the
beginning, take a few newspapers with you. Mike was especially
starved for the NY Times. If he's there when I go back,
I want to find the Spanish edition of the NY Times to
give him. Then I'll wait a few days before giving him
the English version. After that, I'll hope he's not the
kind of guy to carry a grudge.
6. Come with a sense of adventure and remember the area
is isolated. It is remote to most modern aspects of civilization
and sometimes equipment breaks down. This happened while
we were there, toward the end of the trip, to the workhorse
shuttle bus. Never missing a beat, Chris rallied his Chilean
contacts and quickly resolved the problem, finding a substitute
for the ailing bus. In such a remote area with few alternate
resources available, and even fewer mechanics and buses,
that was an amazing feat. And all without imposing on
our river time.
That's the summary of our Chilean kayaking adventure.
It appears that people of all paddling skills can have
a great time at kayak camp, named Tres Monjas, in Chile.
If you are interested in taking a trip yourself, contact
Expediciones Chile, at www.kayakchile.com on the web,
e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (888) 488-9082 to
find out more. We highly recommend the experience, and
are trying to figure out how soon we can go back. The
outfitter really does a great job. Anyone who's paddled
for a while will appreciate all the behind-the-scenes
effort and organization that goes into the trips.
Look for more news and stories to be published soon.